The Song of the Sons

(notes by Alastair Wilson and John Radcliffe)

Publication History

The poem was first published in the English Illustrated Magazine, in May 1893, as one of the six sub-sectional poems to “A Song of the English” It was collected in The Seven Seas, and published simultaneously in London and the USA on 30 October 1896: London, Methuen & Co. New York, D. Appleton & Co.

The Seven Seas was itself collected in the successive editions of Rudyard Kipling’s Inclusive Verse (1918, 1926, 1932) and Definitive Verse (1940): also in the Sussex Edition (Vol. XXXV) and the Burwash Edition (Vol, XXVIII).

The Poem

This is a loose interpretation of the poem:

We come, united, from the corners of the world to offer far more to our Mother-country than those who preach treason—tired politicians and their bestial supporters.
Turn away from them, and pay regard to the rest of your empire—be proud of what your sons have done.
We would like to tell those at home what we have achieved, honestly, unlike those who would sell their votes and allegiance.
We, your sons, bring only our Love, unfettered and unconditional. Listen to us, calling from all the seven seas.

The theme

In high prophetic tones, Kipling continues to speak as the poet of Empire. As throughout “A Song of the English” he is concerned with—as Harry Ricketts (p. 228) puts it—the “Greater Britain” of emerging Empire, rather than the narrow world of literary London, and Westminster politics. Here the ‘Sons’—the English in far-flung corners of the earth—urge the Motherland to accept their unquestioning loyalty, whatever the weaknesses—even treasons—of politicians at home.
Ann Parry (p. 63) writes:

Actively pursuing the propagandist impulse—to create an imperial enthusiasm—the next phase of this sequence, `The Song of the Sons’, imagined the beginning of the new age. England, the `Mother’, was `From the whine of a dying man, from the snarl of a wolf-pack freed’. Once more this was a bitter reference to the previous political dominance of the Liberals, now seen to be at an end with the passing of Gladstone, who had retired and was dying from cancer—though still sending forth some astringent political comments.

The new political era, in contrast with the old, was to be one of integrity and honour. A government which lent `our hearts for a fee’ would be replaced by one that worked `without promise or fee’ and whose great purpose would be to seek kinship with all those `that were bred overseas’. If the `Mother’ will only be `proud of thy seed’ and ‘Judge’ that her sons `are … men of The Blood’, then she could be assured that `the world is thine’.

See also “The Native-Born” (1895).

The Background

We do not know just when Kipling wrote this poem. He had recently settled in Vermont, but there is no reference in the Carrington extracts of Carrie Kipling’s diary to suggest when he might have started it. But it is safe to say that it was probably completed by the end of April 1893, for it to achieve publication in the May issue of the English Illustrated Magazine.

Throughout the sequence of poems which make up “A Song of the English” Kipling is seeking to awaken his readers to the possibilities created by the British who had settled in Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. With the United Kingdom, these were the ‘Five Nations’ of his collection of poems which followed The Seven Seas. They had already become self-governing under the Crown, and Canada had gained ‘Dominion Status’ in 1867, making her—in effect—an independent nation. In the early years of the twentieth century, the others were to follow. The question of how far they should enjoy special trade preferences, and how best to organise Imperial Defence, were lively political issues in the years before the Great War.

But at home in the 1890s British politicians were divided over the Empire. The Conservatives were very much the Imperial party, generally taking the view that the more the map was red the better this would be for Britain—and for mankind.

The Liberals—in 1893 still led by the 84-year-old Gladstone—were more neutral on the issue, conscious of the problems posed by overseas commitments of a dominant government in London. Gladstone had appointed Lord Ripon as Viceroy of India back in 1880, and encouraged him to bring forward measures for local self-government for the Indians, a policy detested by Kipling and his father, and by Anglo-Indians generally, who could see no sensible alternative to continued British rule.

Gladstone had also attempted to bring in Home Rule for Ireland. When this poem was published in May 1893 he had carried it through the House of Commons, and seemed at the height of his powers, though the Bill was heavily and predictably defeated in the House of Lords at the end of the year.

In the poem, Kipling seems to look forward to a post-Gladstone and post-Liberal future. Ireland was turbulent and unstable; with great suffering in the countryside and a violent and sometimes murderous campaign against British rule. Kipling distrusted the Irish, and—like most Conservatives—was strongly opposed to the idea of allowing them to govern themselves.

Gladstone did not in fact leave office until March 1894, nor was his fatal illness known until the following year.

With the exception of a few friends, like Joseph Chamberlain or Alfred Milner, Kipling never had much use for politicians, seeing them as rather like the bandar-log, the monkey people in The Jungle Book (p. 52), written that same year:

They have no Law. They are outcasts. They have no speech of their own, but use the stolen words which they overhear when they listen, and peep, and wait up above in the branches. Their way is not our way. They are without leaders. They have no remembrance. They boast and chatter and pretend that they are a great people about to do great affairs in the Jungle, but the falling of a nut turns their minds to laughter and all is forgotten.

Notes on the Text

[Line 3] From the whine of a dying man, from the snarl of a wolf-pack freed: Ralph Durand (p. 78), echoed by Ann Parry, suggests that this refers to the waning influence of Gladstone, and the campaigns of the Irish Nationalist politicians in Parliament.

[Line 6] The Blood: true Englishmen

[Line 12] the uppermost:  as printed in the first edition (Methuen). This was later corrected to ‘the uttermost’.



©Alastair Wilson and John Radcliffe 2013 All rights reserved